Transcript: Vandana Shiva & the Anti-GMO Debate

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Vandana Shiva attends 'Che Tempo Che Fa' Italian Tv Show held at Rai Studios on May 23, 2010 in Milan, Italy.

On September 23, 2014, Takeaway Host John Hockenberry sat down to interview anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva. A transcript of their conversation appears below.

John Hockenberry [JH]: Vandana Shiva is an author, environmental activist and the charismatic founder of Navdanya, a movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers in India. She gives rousing speeches about corporate agribusiness destroying traditional farms, but she often makes additional frightening claims that GMOs cause farmer suicides, malnutrition, and toxic contamination. Monsanto and its scientists have made billions, she says, while millions of people have suffered.

Vandana Shiva [VS]: Forty percent of greenhouse gases are coming from an industrialized agriculture and globalized agriculture. One-hundred percent of the emissions could be absorbed into the soil by doing ecological agriculture which is the future, not just because it rejuvenates the soil. It’s a climate solution, and good soils with ecological systems, robust with the billions of microorganisms working with us, can produce two times more food, especially if we intensify biodiversity. That’s my work in India through Navdana.

We are doubling food production per acre we are doubling nutrition production which is the most significant issue so it’s a solution to hunger and poverty and malnutrition, but more important when farmers have seed sovereignty, when farmers do organic farming and are not blowing up money on patented seed royalties, expenditure on pesticides and fertilizers, they actually can increase income tenfold. Our members, who are small farmers, have done that.

JH: Monsanto says that it is in fact working on the front lines of increasing food security in the world by doubling food production using its technological techniques. What do you say to that?

VS: Well sadly, [that idea] does very well in advertisements, but not on the ground. The technology of genetic engineering, which made Monsanto a seed giant before it was just a chemical giant, that had brought us dioxins and that had brought us the toxins, that genetic technology is not a breeding technology. It takes existing plants that have been bred by farmers through selection or cross breeding or hybrids, and then it introduces it, through shooting with a gene gun, a gene that doesn’t belong to that plant.

And so far the majority of that application have been two traits. One is called BT toxin where BT is Bacillus thuringiensis, pulling a gene out of a soil organism to now produce a pesticide inside a plant. The approval for BT crops in the United States is for a pesticide, it’s not for food crops. The second family is herbicide tolerant crops where Roundup can be sprayed on plants and the plants survive, but everything else dies. Now not only have these not increased yields, they are actually leading to a decline in yields where superpests and superweeds are now overtaking agriculture.

JH: What do you make of the success on cotton production in India that is a result directly of genetically engineered seeds?

VS: Unfortunately, that too is not true. The Cotton Research Institute of India, which is the premiere institute, has done studies.

JH: But the World Trade administration says that India is one of the biggest producers of cotton, and that was never the case even 10 years ago.

VS: No, that’s not true. India was the biggest producer of cotton. Through history we domesticated cotton. We got freedom through Gandhi spinning cotton. We lost cotton through the colonialism when cotton based on slavery shifted to the U.S. Then during the civil war cotton production moved back to India. During the 10 years, pre-GMOs, was 10 years when the U.S. was subsidizing cotton up to $4 billion a year.

This was the subject of the collapse of the Cancun meetings of the World Trade Organization because the Africans said you are killing us with these subsidies. These subsidies became the issue of dispute in the WTO. Brazil won the case against the U.S. and as long as the subsidies were in place a lot of dumping was taking place, which meant that countries like India couldn’t export. When it’s the subsidy factor and the trade factor that was changed, India could start exporting again.

JH: So the success...

VS: The success is actually the removal of the subsidy distortions.

JH: Nothing to do with the GMOs…

VS: Nothing to do with the GMOs at all. And where we have increased cotton production is because we have increased acreage. And it’s the same story with the green revolution. India produced more rice and wheat, but we increased acreage of rice and wheat, and have had debates with the Borlaug Foundations that we have shown that the land and irrigation explain the increase in production. The idea of miracle seeds and chemicals and now miracle GMOs is covering up the real roots of where production increases.

JH: Let’s talk about golden rice. You say that golden rice is actually causing deaths whereas people claim that golden rice would in fact provide vitamin A to individuals who need it and reduce blindness.

VS: I have never said golden rice is causing deaths, for two reasons: It doesn’t exist so how can it do anything? It’s just a promise for the future. And second, we have never said that the risks of genetic engineering is about killing people. It’s about causing harm. And causing harm is very different.

Golden rice—my critique of golden rice is twofold. First, that it promotes the monocultures that are at the heart of the malnutrition problem, because if you grow diversity, you don't have deficiency problems in minerals, trace elements, and micronutrients.

Second, if you grow by diversity, and you compare the Vitamin A production of the amaranth, the coriander leaves that we use daily in our food, the curry leaves—they have much richer production of Vitamin A, so just give every woman a kitchen garden, and you've solved the Vitamin A problem.

JH: But that doesn't mean that golden rice wouldn't have some benefit.

VS: No, it doesn't have benefit if it's 100 percent, 300 percent less productive in Vitamin A, and your better alternatives are available. Then, you don't really need golden rice, particularly when the spread of golden rice, within a chemical agriculture model, is going to destroy the sources of Vitamin A that people could have for free.

JH: So golden rice would actually destroy agricultural production if it was allowed to be used.

VS: Exactly, but I would add the next miracle they're trying to come up with is the so-called GMO banana, trying to provide iron to women who have iron deficiency anemia in India, and produce Vitamin A for the Ugandans. And they've already rushed trials in the United States with 12 young students—12 students eating three bananas is going to be a scientific study to impose genetically modified bananas.

For India, on iron, we've shown that 7,000 percent more iron we can have through biodiversity. We've also found that the GMO banana is bio-pirated, which means the yellowness has been taken through theft from Micronesia. This, to me, is one of the biggest outrages of the false promise of genetic engineering. That at the end of the day, it's bent on stealing the biological heritage of the third world, their knowledge, and then selling it as an invention.

If Monsanto takes soya bean, which is an East Asian crop, puts one toxic gene into it and says I've invented the seed, that is not creation; it is not invention.

JH: Toxic gene?

VS: Yeah --

JH: A toxic gene?

VS: Yeah, BT is a toxic gene.

JH: Toxic to pests.

VS: No. Now, in the soil organism, the original gene is only toxic to the caterpillar family of pests, it's not toxic to other species; not toxic to humans, to animals. But in the plant, it is now already made toxic, and that's the difference, and there's enough science to show that it is not substantially equivalent.

JH: But doesn't that result in the reduced use of chemical pesticides?

VS: Sadly --

JH: It has in India.

VS: No, it's not true. Because after the BT cotton, where a pesticide-producing gene has been added to the plant, we have more pests in cotton than ever before. Pests that were never caught [in the] past: The aphids, the jassids, the Mealybugs, the army bugs.

JH: But the question is -- there's less pesticide use --

VS: No.

JH: -- in cotton production in India, as a result of the BT cotton --

VS: If you have 300 percent more pests, you're going to have more pesticide use. And the one pest which it was supposed to control, which is called the bollworm, which came to India from the hybrid cotton from America—the bollworm has become pink [and the] bollworm has become resistant, so now Monsanto has Bollgard II, the second generation of two toxic genes. The resistance has made the pest it was targeting evolve resistance and [in the] meantime, in six that were never pests have become pests for which more pesticide is being sprayed.

JH: I understand what you're saying. You may be right that the pests are increasing and eventually it will change, but right now, pesticide use is actually down.

VS: I don't think national data is what one looks at. You look at the particular fields where the BT cotton was grown [and] you talk to the farmers, are they using less or more pesticide?

JH: They're saying they use less.

VS: No, they're using more. Our studies show they're using more.

JH: Alright, well, that's sort of the hazy sort of stats --

VS: Yes.

JH: Who says, who says.

VS: Yes.

JH: And that's part of what's frustrating about this debate. Why is Monsanto directly responsible and answerable for the suicides of Indian farmers?

VS: You know, I have a very plain logic to this. If you say you own something, then you own the impacts of that something. You're selling a seed where you're collecting royalty in the name of technology fees and technology trade --

JH: Right.

VS: --because India doesn't allow patenting. And you're collecting that, and that is shooting up the price.

JH: So the price pushes the farmers --

VS: Into debt.

JH: -- into insolvency, the insolvency causes the suicides.

VS: Exactly.

JH: Why do the stats show that farmers are no more likely to commit suicide in India these days than other professions?

VS: No that’s not true and again -

JH: Actually that is true.

VS: No, no, what you need to look at is the pockets. I’m trained as a physicist, if you’re looking at a phenomena and you’re looking at the processes, you look at where those process is taking place. If most of the suicides are in the cotton area, then you look at the processes in the cotton belt. You don’t shoot up to national averages.

So I think we just need to be far more specific. I mean you take WTO subsidy data on exports and you don’t talk about subsidies. You talk national averages, you don’t talk about what’s happening to the farmers in Maharaj. I think good science is about specificity.

JH: What public health issue is directly relatable to GMO crops?

VS: That’s what we’re demanding be studied!

JH: You, you, can say there is no public health fatality, malady -

VS: We’ve never said it would be about fatality. We do say--

JH: But what is the claim of public health risk from GMOs that you can point to?

VS: You have a system in this country where you can say substantial equivalence—pretend a genetically modified food is the same as a non-genetically modified food. And then it comes to ownership, you say no we’ve made it for the first time, it’s an invention. That’s ontological schizophrenia.

You can’t have the same thing as novel when it comes to ownership and natural when it comes to shedding responsibility.

JH: That’s the sovereignty issue. That’s not the public health issue. Can I just ask you--

VS: No, but I think there’s a public health issue in the fact that the American public is finally saying we need to know what we eat. We need labeling laws, a simple democratic law of saying I know what’s in my food. Why are millions and millions of dollars being poured to kill the labeling initiatives or sue states like Vermont? Why has democracy to be sacrificed?

JH: Monsanto says that the laws that exist now are perfectly adequate to determine which are GMOs and which are GMO free foods in the United States. What do you say to that?

VS: Well I trust the American public to know better about what’s in the interests for the American public than Monsanto’s judgment. Afterall, democracy means Monsanto doesn’t decide, the people do.

JH: Why can you double food production faster than companies like Monsanto using technological means to increase food production?

VS: For one, they use technological means without looking at the overall context of what happens to the soil, what happens to the biodiversity, what happens to the pollinators. We can double food production because we work with biodiversity, we work with the soil, we work with the pollinators. There are six times more pollinators on the Navdanya farm than in the forest next door.

JH: But you wouldn't deny the increase in agricultural production over the last 20 years has something to do with the technology.

VS: For me, technology is a tool and you look at what the tools do. In the case of agriculture, a tool is a very small component. The soil fertility decides how much you'll get, whether you have irrigation or not that decides how much output you have. The potential of the seed decides. The biodiversity intensification decides. The reason our systems produce more is we intensify biodiversity. And the more biodiversity there is, the more nutrition per acre there is. The industrial system which is called the use of technology actually kills—destroys—biodiversity, has destroyed the fertility of soils, that intensive agriculture that's producing less food per acre is producing more commodities per acre.

But commodities are going to drive cars as biofuels, they're going to torture animal as animal feed. That's not a food system. The first issue about industrial agriculture is it is destroying the planet. The second issue is that it's giving us nutritionally empty commodities with no micronutrients, no trace elements and that's why we have so many new diseases, which also need to be looked at much more. The impact of toxics need to be looked at much more. The third aspect is the fact that industrial agriculture, which uses 10 times more input than it produces food and also uses 10 times more finances than it can earn for the farmer—it's a negative economy. Farmers trapped in this negative economy is the reason family farms have disappeared, is the reason our small peasants are being pushed off the land, when there are systems of farming that can give meaningful viable livelihoods that protect the livelihood of farmers.

JH: That's very persuasive. But I fear that you're conflating the debate over industrial agriculture, which is a legitimate debate, with the debate over GMOs, which is a fundamentally different discussion.

VS: It's not a different discussion and I think it is time to not let it be treated as independent of the industrial agriculture system. GMOs are part of the industrial agriculture system.

JH: Well, no, it's --

VS: GMOs don't exist in and of themselves.

JH: No, no, I understand that. But mass scale agriculture is different from genetically modified corn.

VS: No, no, genetically modified corn requires a conversion to industrial agriculture, which is why we will solve this problem of fruitless debate when we realize that the gene doesn't exist independent of the plant. And a GMO doesn't exist independent of an agriculture system.